Art smart: Haryana school provides canvas of learning with traditional model

The arts can be transformative, and a few institutions and organisations for the youth are spearheading the change through varied artistic mediums
Children at Artreach India put up a performance
Children at Artreach India put up a performance

Eleven-year-old Rupa’s world was upended when she was moved from her village school to the futuristic VidyaGyan School, Dulhera, in Haryana. She overcame the ensuing anxiety by finding solace in an unlikely source—the school’s art room. As the daughter of a low-income farmer from Uttar Pradesh, her fully funded scholarship to India’s first rural leadership academy for meritorious and underprivileged students, founded by the Shiv Nadar Foundation was a life-changer.

Her academic prowess put her ahead of her peers, and the fact that her family’s annual income was under Rs 1 lakh per annum, made her an ideal candidate for admission to the school, which only accepts the most gifted and deserving. Yet, it was a difficult task for her to leave the simple world she had known till then, to move to a boarding school where all communication was in English, and everything—from teaching methods to entertainment and friends—was new.

“During my first week, I remember bursting into tears when I couldn’t respond to a teacher’s question in English,” recalls Rupa, now 16, fluent in English and the topper of her batch. She adds, “The art classes were where I could express myself most easily because art has no language.” To the school principal, Meenambika Menon, this is unsurprising. Addressing the fact that many of these children have never had exposure to art when they enter VidyaGyan School, she says, “The students are like clean slates and eager to grasp whatever new they are offered.” 

She highlights a well-known truth in the art fraternity, but one that has only recently begun to gain acceptance in education circles: exposure to the arts, especially from a young age, gives an unparalleled sense of confidence, and enhances the emotional, cognitive and social well-being of people.

Canvas of learning

Mehek, a young student from the Karm Marg care home for underprivileged children in Delhi, always enjoyed watching the women from nearby villages who came to work there, as they stitched recycled cotton textiles into new designs for sale. She felt there was power in creativity, and secretly nurtured a dream to design her line of textiles someday. When the team at Artreach India conducted a year-long programme with a mixed media artist for her cohort, that dream slowly became an achievable reality. At the end of the year, her talent and hard work landed Mehek an internship with a reputed textile design firm, which later turned into a job offer.

Artreach India’s mission is to connect children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds with Indian and international artists. They often collaborate with NGOs, schools, foundations and museums to access different groups in urban settings and remote areas. “For young people to have access to some form of art learning, or even basic materials and space to experiment with it (whether drawing or theatre or games), is integral to thinking holistically about education,” says Ita Mehrotra, creative director at Artreach. “It goes beyond just developing skills. It’s about having space to think creatively and encouraging young people to express what they see and feel, without fearing being wrong—that fear comes in early in schools through authoritative structures, and often crushes the capacity to believe in one’s voice.”

This is also the mandate of UNESCO, declared on its website: “Culture and the arts transform education. They foster creativity, innovation, diversity, resilience, inclusivity and empathy, imagination and curiosity, agility, critical thinking, self-confidence, and equip people with the power to face tomorrow’s challenges.” To this, Audrey Azoulay, director-general of UNESCO, adds, “At a time when challenges related to climate, peace, education and the future of our societies are converging, our need for the power of art—and for it to be made accessible to all through arts education—is stronger than ever.” Several studies affirm this. In its report from 2002, the Arts Education Partnership shared that schoolchildren with exposure to drama, music and dance are more proficient at reading, writing and math. Similarly, a 1999 study carried out in the US as a public awareness campaign determined that both teachers and students benefit when art education is promoted.

This certainly was the case for Salim, a child brought up in the care of the Rainbow Homes programme. Facing adjustment issues, he found release in art through workshops conducted by Artreach India. His innate ability to express himself on paper brought him to the notice of a prominent artist, with whom he has been working as a studio assistant for two years.

Mehrotra highlights that even a science or math teacher can encourage imaginative growth. So, poetry can be used to teach scientific principles, and painting can help grasp history and geography. Art-focused education becomes a powerful coping mechanism in adulthood. It also broadens the scope of learning by bringing young people to museums, architectural sites and other art spaces outside their schools.

The Traditional Model

Inculcating art into every aspect of traditional learning is an important one. Manjima Chatterjee, the vice-principal of Shiv Nadar School, Noida, and the central arts curriculum lead of all its branches, believes the arts are a great equaliser, particularly in the context of schools. “We see arts as 
a primarily kinaesthetic space, engaging the whole body in its making,” she says adding, “Given 
a challenge that appeals to them, students of all age groups enjoy engaging with the arts, as long as adults do not turn it into a competitive space.”

She further highlights that as creativity demands slow and deep engagement, children sometimes dismiss it as being boredom-inducing. “There is nothing wrong with feeling bored on occasion because it teaches children to rely on their capacity for inventiveness, and this can only come to be if they are given enough breathing space to come up with new ideas.”

<em><strong>Children at Artreach India put up a performance</strong></em>
Children at Artreach India put up a performance

Her advice for parents is to create options for children to engage with the arts in ample ways. This can be done by leaving an instrument, paints or costuming paraphernalia lying around. Children will pick their preferences as per their interests. “The best thing about the arts is that it comes naturally to us—it’s genetically coded into our body’s memories—and is, therefore, the default option. Take away the noise and it’s what we naturally tend to do,” says Chatterjee.

While some private schools and institutions are ahead of the game, the Government of India has also realised the importance of the subject. A parliamentary panel formed last year, suggested in its report, titled ‘Reforms in the education of performing and fine arts’, that art education should be made compulsory up to Class 10, since the National Education Policy 2020 had called for its integration into mainstream education.

This meant encouraging the development of infrastructure and facilities in every school covering music, dance, visual arts and theatre with a special emphasis on Indian traditional and folk arts. Other recommendations included the establishment of a ‘Rashtriya Kala Vishwa Vidyalaya’ or a central arts university, as well as granting the status of ‘institutes of national importance’ to the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, National School of Drama, Delhi, Akhil Bharatiya Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, Mumbai, and Sir JJ School of Arts, Mumbai, among others. Suggestions for expanding the curriculum of FTII to include a study of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, augmented reality and mobile telephony, were also put forward.

Though still viewed as essential to the growing years, arts education at a higher level seldom receives the importance it deserves. Private art-focused universities attempt to bridge this gap. Bhumika, a student of the EdNet School of Art and Design in Delhi, had always known she wanted to pursue art, but was disillusioned about which direction to take. EdNet’s focus on imparting specialised skills in varied art forms gave her exposure and the means to improve.

Her interests led her to excel in the medium of digital art. Receiving positive feedback on her end-of-year project by a team from the California College of the Arts, flown in by EdNet for this purpose, fuelled her drive to succeed. Niharika Sondhi, founder and director of the institute as well as of bespoke consultancy EdNet Consultants, summarises Bhumika’s experience: “In a career spanning over 20 years, I have seen first-hand the transformative power of arts education and how it can open doors to a world of opportunities for students.”

Glue that binds

Institutionalised education isn’t always in everyone’s grasp. Aware of this truth, a bunch of enterprising educators have taken the matter in their own hands. In 2009, fresh out of an MA, Sanyukta Saha signed up to be an arts programme coordinator for a project at the Hazrat Nizamuddin basti. A few years later, having realised the potential of drama, she started Aagaaz Theatre Trust to pursue social change. Initially, she worked with 35 children from the basti who were bitten by the theatre bug. “Aagaaz was born out of an unsettling realisation that all theatre makers in Delhi come from privilege. The act of story-making and telling was, therefore, only the purview of a few. How does that affect building narratives in the mainstream cultural domain?” she asks.

Eight years on, the organisation has its own space christened Khwab Ghar (home of dreams), which includes a library. It conducts regular thematic workshops, drama jams, listening circles and more with almost 80 children. Their theatre repertory now consists of nine of the children Saha first began working with, who travel and perform across the country.

The phenomenal results of this exposure are there for everyone to see. Saha’s student Zainab joined Aagaaz at the tender age of eight. The confidence gained from her performances encouraged her to pursue her education, and in time she became one of few girls from the basti to complete her graduation from Lady Irwin College, Delhi University, on a scholarship. Now she works with Aagaaz as a theatre-maker, library programme co-lead, and art educator, a job that allows her to support her family.

Where theatre was the art of choice for Saha, Bharatnatyam dancer Sohini Roychowdhury from Kolkata believed in the power of dance. When she met Lisbeth Johansen, the Danish founder of LittleBigHelp, an NGO working to empower and secure the rights of vulnerable people in West Bengal, she realised that her best contribution would be to train the children in the dance form. “They had never danced before in a serious manner with targets.

Their primary exposure was to Bollywood songs. But that worked out well because they didn’t have to unlearn,” she says. Her focus is to inculcate the importance of dance as an essential part of one’s being. “This has allowed them to perform consistently on discerning platforms for the last three years. I also expose them to art galleries to connect and reimagine. We do workshops with Western classical music to add colour to their repertoire and discuss mythological stories and contemporary ones at our storytelling sessions so they may be able to translate them to dance,” Roychowdhury shares.

Another community art initiative aimed at the collective welfare of its participants is the Gram Art Project based in Paradsinga village, 60 km outside of Nagpur, started by artist and farmer Shweta Bhattad. She says, “After graduating from the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Baroda, I searched for a language for my work. I spent much time in my village and realised that this was where I could make the biggest difference.”

She rallied together her artist friends from around the country and abroad and began her community project. Their artwork ranges from ‘landarts’ to yarn artifacts made from the non-GM, non-hybrid cotton they grow, plantable seed papers and edible artifacts made from their organic produce. They also organise performances to disseminate awareness about their issues. She quickly adds a caveat though: “There is no teaching or learning here. It’s an inclusive process. Our focus is on the project and every person has an expertise that only they can offer. This enables many views to be shared and discussed and enriching solutions to be found.”

In 2005, the Rand Corporation released a report called ‘ A Portrait of the Visual Arts’, which showed that apart from giving students a creative outlet, art education helps connect them to the larger world, improving community cohesion. These young community leaders certainly prove this.

Challenges and Solutions

Just as the arts education curriculum hasn’t changed in decades, so haven’t the challenges to spread awareness of its importance. When the private museum, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), opened its doors in 2010, its biggest task was cultivating a museum-going culture in India. They realised the problem lay in the lack of emphasis on art education at school and home. “When we stress on that, the kids will learn and so will the parents,” says Apurva Kacker, Chief Marketing Officer, KNMA. By holding workshops and summer camps, conducting walkthroughs, organising plays, arranging fashion displays, and hosting interactive exhibits, KNMA is well on its way to achieving this.

Another significant challenge lies in convincing people of the benefits of practising art. On becoming friendly with the transgender community through a film project she was working on, Poornima Sukumar, artist and founder of Bengaluru-based Aravani Art Project, decided to teach them art, so they could use their free time to express themselves. For the last seven years, this art collective has painted large murals on walls, often sponsored by the government or private institutions. Their popularity means they are never short of work.

It wasn’t an easy beginning, however. “Even though they have a zest to do something, they have little to no knowledge. Initially, it was hard to explain what the point of this knowledge was. They are adults and have many preconceived notions. They keep thinking about how this will benefit me and the community. These questions can only be answered in the long run,” she says. Fortunately, now the impact of the work speaks for itself.

In a more traditional set-up, the second branch of VidyaGyan rural leadership academy at Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh, faces the challenge of making arts education a holistic offering. Yet, the students’ creativity knows no bounds. Principal Swati S Shaligram shares the story of Iqbal, who came to VidyaGyan in class VI. Although a talented boy, he had never had exposure to modern forms of art. When tasked with creating a vibrant project about the environment for a science module, he recreated a local art form he had picked up in his village to add beauty and send a powerful message. The project encouraged others to follow suit. “They are quick learners and grasp things with great ease, and we are delighted to see the final results,” says Shaligram.

Some names have been changed to protect the identity of the students.

A 2002 report by the Arts Education Partnership revealed that schoolchildren exposed to drama, music and dance are often more proficient at reading, writing and maths. The 2006 Solomon R Guggenheim Museum study showed a link between arts education and improved literacy skills

A 2005 report by the Rand Corporation called ‘A Portrait of the Visual Arts’ argues that art education can help connect students to the larger world, thus improving community cohesion. A study of Missouri public schools in 2010 found that greater arts education led to fewer disciplinary infractions and higher attendance, graduation rates and test scores In ‘Neuroeducation: Learning, Arts and the Brain’, Johns Hopkins researchers shared findings showing that arts education can help rewire the brain in positive ways

“Art learning is about having a space to think creatively and encouraging young people to express what they see and feel, without fearing being wrong—that fear comes in early in schools through authoritative structures.”

Ita Mehrotra, creative director, Artreach

“At a time when challenges related to climate, peace, education and the future of our societies are converging, our need for the power of art—and for it to be made accessible to all through arts 
education—is stronger than ever.”

Audrey Azoulay, Director-General, UNESCO

“The best thing about the arts is that it comes naturally to us—it’s genetically coded into our body’s memories—and is, therefore, our default option. Take away the noise and it’s what we naturally tend to do.”

Manjima Chatterjee, Vice Principal, Shiv Nadar School, Noida  

“There is no teaching or learning here. It’s an inclusive process. Our focus is on the project and every person has an expertise that only they can offer. This enables many views to be shared and discussed, and enriching solutions to be found.”

Shweta Bhattad, founder, Gram Art Project

“At LittleBigHelp, we do workshops with Western classical music to add colour to their repertoire and discuss mythological stories and contemporary ones at our storytelling sessions so they may be able to translate them to dance.”

Sohini Roychowdhury, Bharatnatyam dancer 

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